From the Pages of Vine Line: Don Zimmer lived a baseball life

Zimmer

(Getty Images)

For the August issue of Vine Line, we took a look back at the inimitable career of former Cubs player, coach and manager Don Zimmer.

On July 17, 1990, manager Don Zimmer’s struggling Cubs squad was in the midst of a modest three-game winning streak. But what the team really needed was to get its slumping ace, Greg Maddux, back on track. Following a comfortable 7-2 win over the Padres, Zimmer was asked about the next day’s game and was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying:

“Hopefully, tomorrow, [Maddux] can go out and pitch well enough to get a W. If he does, who knows? He might win four, five, six games.”

And then the coup de grâce.

“I’d swim Lake Michigan if Maddux could win tomorrow.”

Though, at first glance, it would seem like a bad idea to bet against a future Hall of Famer and eventual 355-game winner, Maddux was in the midst of a rare rough patch. He had gone 0-8 in his last 13 starts with a 6.15 ERA and hadn’t won since May 5. He was also just 24 years old, and his shelves were not yet lined with Cy Young Awards, so a successful rebound wasn’t a certainty.

Apparently just as eager to see Zimmer jump in a lake as the press corps, The Professor responded by twirling seven solid innings in a Cubs 4-2 win and picking up his 50th career victory to propel the team to a three-game sweep of the Friars.

Following the game, Zimmer showed up at his press conference wearing sunglasses, an orange life jacket and an inflatable inner tube around his rather sizable waist. As for the 60-mile swim, the fun-loving Zim demurred, saying he swam “like a rock.”

“Sometimes you make statements,” he explained. “I just wanted the kid to win a ballgame.”

And that, in essence, was former Cubs player, coach and manager Don Zimmer, who died on June 4 in Dunedin, Florida, at the age of 83. He was passionate, comical and, above all, a dedicated baseball man who would do anything to motivate his players and pick up a win. Zimmer spent his life learning and trying to understand baseball, and he had a special gift for passing on his acquired knowledge in a friendly, accessible way.

“He was like a psychologist,” said Cubs Hall of Famer and former teammate Ernie Banks. “He understood things real well. A lot of people look at the world as backward. But he did not. He looked at [baseball] as a business you could learn. You can learn playing this game. You can learn how to play it. You can learn how to manage it.”

Over six professional decades, Zimmer made All-Star teams as a player and coach, collected six World Series rings, won a Manager of the Year Award and left an indelible mark on the game by influencing generations of players, from Cubs greats Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace to modern superstars like Evan Longoria and Derek Jeter (who used to rub Zim’s head for luck before at-bats).

“[He was] iconic, jolly,” said Cubs outfielder Justin Ruggiano, who was with Tampa Bay when Zimmer was a senior advisor there. “He was a voice of influence—a man with so much history in the game you couldn’t help but engage with him in conversation about baseball, stories about baseball, advice about things you could do differently to help improve your game.”

THE LIFER

During his years on the diamond, the jowly, ebullient baseball lifer earned a reputation as a character. He was a phenomenal storyteller who was quick with a joke—especially if it was directed at himself.

Modern fans probably best remember Zimmer as the bench coach for Joe Torre’s championship New York Yankees teams, on which he collected four World Series rings between 1996-2003. In classic Zimmer style, he liked to downplay his impact on those dominant Yankees squads—even though Torre was always quick to admit he ran everything by his second in command, who managed more than 1,700 of his own major league games.

“People say, ‘What is the job of a bench coach?’” said Zimmer in a 2001 interview with Esquire. “Very simple—I sit next to Torre on the bench. When he plays hit-and-run that works, I say, ‘Nice goin’, Skipper,’ and if it doesn’t work, I go down to the other end of the bench, get a drink and get out of his way. We only got one manager. I don’t want no credit for doin’ anything.”
When most fans picture Zimmer, they probably see him wearing a green army helmet emblazoned with the Yankees logo one day after being struck on the side of his face by a foul ball during a 1999 playoff game against Texas. Or charging at, and being thrown to the ground by, then-Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS at 72 years old.

But lost in these remembrances is what a dedicated, intelligent, forward-thinking baseball man he actually was. Truly, there’s almost nothing Zimmer didn’t do in his years on a baseball field.

He married his high school sweetheart, Jean (nicknamed Soot), at home plate in Class-A Elmira, New York, in 1951, with his teammates holding a canopy of bats over their heads; he met Babe Ruth; he played alongside Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers; he helped move baseball westward on the inaugural Los Angeles Dodgers team; he was an original New York Met; he played in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Japan; he coached, he managed, he advised; he won World Series championships as a player and coach; and he taught legions of players what it means to be a major leaguer.

But Zimmer was also a survivor. He was fired from four managerial jobs; he was Boston’s manager when Bucky (Effin’) Dent hit his fateful, wind-aided home run over the Green Monster in the 1978 AL East tiebreaker game; and he had more than his fair share of run-ins with management.

But that was hardly the worst of it. During his playing career, he fought his way back from two near-fatal beanings—the first in 1953 and the second in ’56. The initial one, which happened when he was still in Triple-A, fractured his skull and left him unconscious for almost two weeks, requiring doctors to drill four holes in his head to relieve the pressure and swelling. The second, a fastball from Reds pitcher Hal Jeff-coat, crushed his cheekbone and almost cost him an eye. Though he was never really the same player after that, he still found ways to contribute to the game he loved and hung on to play until 1965.

“What you lack in talent can be made up with desire, hustle and giving 110 percent all the time,” Zimmer once told the Chicago Tribune.

Through it all, he never lost his passion for the game and never once considered any other career.

“I can’t say it enough about how much he still loved the game,” said former Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, who met Zimmer during his time with the Rays. “To be in something for 60-plus years, you’ve got to really have a passion for it.”

CHICAGO LEGACY

Despite his success in New York, perhaps no stretch in Zimmer’s career was as wild and as colorful as his time with the Cubs. The squat, muscular infielder—his forearms were so large, Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella nicknamed him Popeye—made the lone All-Star appearance of his 12-year playing career as a Cubs second baseman in 1961. That season, he hit .252/.291/.403 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 home runs in 128 games.

Zimmer began his big league baseball career in 1954 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he won a World Series title as a reserve infielder in 1955 and then made the move westward to Los Angeles in 1958. In April 1960, with Maury Wills ready to take over the Dodgers shortstop job, Zimmer was traded to the Cubs for Ron Perranoski, Johnny Goryl, Lee Handley and $25,000.

But Zimmer’s first go-round in Chicago would be short-lived. In 1961, he played for the Cubs during the initial season of the College of Coaches. With the team forgoing a single manager and constantly changing leadership, owner Philip K. Wrigley and General Manager John Holland named Zim captain, calling upon his “veteran presence.”

But he ruffled a few feathers when WGN Radio broadcaster Lou Boudreau interviewed him midseason about the coaching experiment. Zimmer, as usual, spoke his mind and told the listening audience about the system’s faults—coaches playing favorites, guys not knowing who would be starting, one coach wanting things one way while another wanted things a different way, etc. The coaches had the radio on in the clubhouse and heard the interview. Afterward, one of them told Zimmer he wouldn’t have to worry about it for too much longer because he’d be gone before the start of the next season.

And the coaches were true to their word. On Oct. 10, 1961, Zimmer was selected by the New York Mets from the Cubs in the expansion draft. After that, he spent brief stints with the Reds, Dodgers and Senators, where he played his final major league game in 1965. He toiled one last year in Japan in 1966 and then moved into coaching, eventually becoming the manager of the San Diego Padres (1972-73), Boston Red Sox (1976-80) and Texas Rangers (1981-82).

He wouldn’t rejoin the Cubs until 1984, as the team’s third base coach under longtime friend and manager Jim Frey. Though that 1984 Cubs team ultimately won the NL East title, both Zimmer and Frey would lose their jobs in June 1986, with the club languishing 16.5 games out of first.

He spent the intervening years with the Yankees and Giants, but rejoined the North Siders as manager in 1988, when Frey was hired as GM following Dallas Green’s resignation.

After a below-.500 season in 1988, Zimmer had the finest managerial campaign of his career in 1989, when he led the “Boys of Zimmer” to a surprising NL East crown. His popularity on the North Side skyrocketed, as he used aggressive strategies no one had ever seen before—or since—to help Sandberg, Grace, Maddux, Andre Dawson, Rick Sutcliffe, Mitch Williams and the rest win 93 games.

“This guy was an amazing person,” Banks said. “He was like a genius to me. He could do things that were so special in this game. It was like the game was built for him. When he came in to manage the Cubs, the things that he was doing, nobody could understand it. Bases loaded—a bunt. You’d say, ‘Why is he doing that?’ He knew everything there is. He was one of the smartest guys I ever met in the game.

“He understood the fans here. He understood the players here. He understood everything about the park. The wind blowing out to right, the wind blowing to left field, the foul lines. I mean, he just knew everything about this park that I don’t think anybody knew about. He had great instincts for the game.”

Zimmer’s colorful personality and wild strategies grabbed the attention of the baseball world. Though the Cubs ultimately fell to the Giants in five games in the NLCS, he was awarded Manager of the Year for his efforts—and a permanent place in the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere.

“I’ve been in a lot of great cities and known a lot of great fans, but I’ve never seen so many fans of one team in so many different places,” Zimmer said during that 1989 season. “I was with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and there were a lot of Brooklyn fans everywhere, but I’ve never seen as many fans around the country as Cub fans.”

PAY IT FORWARD

In his last professional stop, Zimmer joined the Rays as a senior advisor in 2004 and remained there until his death. With Tampa Bay, the man who gave his life to the game was able to spend his later years dispensing knowledge and helping younger players develop.

“I always loved to go to the clubhouse early for lunch and just sit down, and he’d be in there, and he’d just be telling stories,” Ruggiano said of his days with the Rays. “I just feel like, as a player, you get a real feel for the history of baseball from older veteran guys’ stories, and he was one of the best at it. He could tell story after story. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to go work.”

Hammel, who was with the Rays during their shocking 2008 run to the World Series, credits Zim with helping turn that moribund franchise around after a decade in the AL East cellar.

“For him to come over and all of a sudden completely change the dynamic that he was surrounded with—[the Yankees had] a lot of veterans and a team that knew only winning,” Hammel said. “Then to come to Tampa, and it’s just a bunch of young guys who didn’t know winning. I really do believe he was part of the turnaround there.”

I guess, after 66 years on a baseball diamond, you learn a thing or two.

“The guy went through everything,” Ruggiano said. “You can imagine in 60 years of baseball, he’d been through everything that any player nowadays who plays the game for five or 10 years can go through. And then all the different things he did in the game—coaching, managing, playing. He had seen it all. He had so much information for younger guys that helped us all out.”

Zimmer is survived by his wife of 62 years; his son, Thomas; his daughter, Donna; and four grandchildren. He also leaves behind an unmatched baseball legacy and an unforgettable mark on Cubs history.

—Gary Cohen

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